Transition and adjustment to civilian life

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Why is adjustment to civilian life a challenge for some military people?

Whilst many personnel leaving the military may initially experience some uncertainty and a loss of confidence, most make the adjustment successfully. At other times, the problems may not go away – and for some, become worse.
Some of the reasons why making the transition can be challenging include:

  • The military has a unique culture, one that is very different to civilian culture. Some discharged members may experience ‘culture shock’ as they try to adjust to civilian life and a civilian workplace.
  • Some ex-military personnel report feeling isolated or ‘different’ to civilians and some find it hard to develop new friendships once they leave the military.
  • To many the military is more than a job, it is a ‘way of life’ involving values, priorities and beliefs about the world that often affect all aspects of a person’s life.

Those leaving the military with service related problems such as chronic ill health, injury, posttraumatic stress disorder (related to war or service trauma), anxiety disorders, chronic pain or depression may experience additional adjustment difficulties.

What are some of the social issues for military personnel making the transition to civilian life?

Sometimes members making the transition to civilian life may:

  • Have trouble readjusting to family they have not lived with for a long period. This can include parenting responsibilities.
  • Feel cut off from people or feel unable to connect with anyone.
  • Find it hard to accept the difference between civilian life and experiences in military service.
  • Feel ashamed, angry or humiliated if they left the military involuntarily.
  • Experience a loss of role, identity or purpose.
  • Find it difficult getting a new job. Further, a new job can be challenging if they have to readapt or learn new skills.
  • Have concerns about supporting the family, possibly on a lower wage.
  • Have financial problems.
  • Feel less valued or appreciated with a sense of diminished status in life.
  • Find it challenging making new friends, and coping without old friends.
  • Find civilian life chaotic due to perceived lack of structure, order, and direction.
  • Not know what to do with free time.

When is it time to get help?

If any of the following are experienced:

  • Reduced physical capacity due to service-related injuries or illnesses.
  • Increased anxiety, worry or a general sense of nervousness.
  • Feelings of panic or feeling overwhelmed.
  • Anger, aggression, irritability or rage (including road rage and physical fights).
  • Sleep disturbance, such as increased sleep, disturbed sleep, insomnia or regular nightmares.
  • Unusual or increased levels of conflict in relationships.
  • Depression, hopelessness or suicidal thoughts or plans.
  • Reduced ability to concentrate or manage work tasks.
  • Increased or excessive use of alcohol (including binge drinking), prescription drugs and illegal drugs.
  • Avoidance of social activities and friends.
  • Not feeling interested in hobbies or activities that used to be important or enjoyable including sex and intimacy.
  • Somatic complaints such as headaches (not related to an existing injury or illness) unexplained aches, and tension.
  • Difficulty coping or planning ahead, or continuing in day to day activities.
  • Feeling lost, lonely, worthless, or having no purpose.
  • Lowered self-confidence or self-esteem.
  • Feeling unsafe or needing to ‘patrol’ at night.

Transitioning members may experience one or more of these symptoms or problems in the early stages of their transition to civilian life. If the symptoms or problems last for more than one month or are distressing, it is advisable to seek help.

What can military personnel do to help themselves?

  • Seek help if they experience difficulties, or if problems persist for more than a month.
  • Talk to people in similar situations and learn as much about transition as possible.
  • Try not to take on too much at once, plan and structure their days/weeks.
  • Look for work that will meet their needs and match their skills.
  • Develop personal contacts and friendships outside the Defence Force.
  • Remember the importance of including physical activity, recreation and relaxation into their life.
  • Take time to enjoy and be involved in relationships with others (for example, partner and/or children).
  • Draw on previous experiences of change and strategies used to cope at that time.

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